Tuesday, July 12, 2005

BOOKS: I'm Uneasy Being Green

When I started my maternity leave, I had grand plans for all the projects I'd complete, including launching a site that would see me sampling and reviewing each of the bazillion coffee shops in my neighbourhood on a daily basis.

Unfortunately, my plans so far have been foiled by travel, bad weather, the realities of motherhood, and -- let's be honest -- a questionable work ethic. So my caffeine-procurement expeditions have been confined to the two coffee shops within a one-block radius of my house.

Usually these are stealth missions: I dash in, place my to-go order, and rush out as fast as humanly possible, so as not to provoke the ire of the small, restless organism that inhabits the pouch strapped to my front and demands constant motion.

But one fine day, inspired by I know not what spirit of daring, I decided to sit down and drink my mocha in the patchouli-soaked ambience of the hippie coffee shop around the corner.

(Of the two coffee shops I visit, one has been claimed by the local hippie/creatively unemployed crowd. The other is home to the aging -- yet still loud -- Italian male residents who can also be heard yelling on the bocce ball courts a block and a half from my house. I could tell you my theory on the symbiotic evolutionary relationships between these two populations and the flavours of the coffees they ingest, but I sense your finger hovering over the "back" button, so I'll stop now.)

Anyway. While sitting there, I took a long look at the bookshelves for the first time ever. Now, much as I love both books and coffee shops, I usually only give a passing glance to books
in coffee shops -- a cursory title inspection, and that's about it. I've never really understood the point of books in coffee shops. I mean, you can't finish the book in one sitting, and you can't take it with you, so what's the point?

Someone obviously agrees with me, because they've started a program that I discovered while scanning the shelves, a program that my local coffee shop has joined, which I applaud. Called BookCrossings, this international initiative encourages people to register their unwanted books, release them into the wild, then track their travels online.

It's a fabulous idea for people like me, who like the
idea of getting rid of surplus books but have severe separation anxiety when confronted with the reality of doing so. Releasing books the BookCrossings way offers a pleasing middle ground.

So, of course, once I realized that I could actually take a book home with me, I had to do it... just out of principle. And when I spied Barbara Kingsolver's latest book -- in hardcover, no less -- the decision was a no-brainer.

Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver (#20)
I've read all of Kingsolver's novels, and they were all just good enough to keep me coming back to the trough... that is, until The Poisonwood Bible, which is one of the finest, most moving novels I've read in the past few years. So I had high-ish hopes for Prodigal Summer. A bit too high.

Don't get me wrong. While neither as emotionally ambitious nor as sweeping in scope as The Poisonwood Bible, Prodigal Summer is still a good story, and definitely superior to Kingsolver's early work. But you know how it is when a writer knocks your socks off: you put on fresh socks and wait for her to come back and do it again.

The novel takes place -- you guessed it -- over one fecund summer in the Appalachian foothills that Kingsolver herself calls home. It tells the stories of three characters in narratives that start out as isolated but eventually (and to Kingsolver's credit, quite subtly) intertwine in unexpected ways. There's Deanna Wolfe, a reclusive park ranger who chooses to inhabit the woods rather than mingle with people; Lusa Maluf Landowski, a former entomologist now recently widowed and feeling herself an interloper in this community that she is new to; and Garnet Walker, a crusty retired farmer on a one-man mission to bring back the extinct American chestnut tree.

As you might have guessed, there's a pretty blatant theme going on here, about people and our relationship with the land and the other critters with whom we share it, including other people. This, for me, is where the novel falls down. As a thirtysomething adult, I don't feel that I need a book's meaning to be so obvious. And when I say "obvious," I do mean obvious. Subtext is thin on the ground here.

And much as I love nature and all that (hell, I even donate to Greenpeace every month), I'm uncomfortable with having ecology preached at me from a novel. Call me an old-fashioned curmudgeon, but that's what non-fiction is for, consarnit!

Still, it was a good enough read -- Kingsolver has gorgeous descriptive powers, and I did learn a lot about nature 'n' stuff (albeit against my will) -- so I'll continue to pick up her future novels. I guess this is a case of an author taking two steps forward and one step back. I'm an optimist: I'll look forward to Kingsolver's next two-step leap.


Anonymous said...

You know, I was wondering what it was that bothered me about Prodigal Summer, but I think you've hit the nail on the head. It was too preachy, which really detracted from the story. And I agree with you on Poisonwood Bible - that is a fantastic book.

How are you finding time to read with the new baby? I have 2 little ones, and I have about 5 minutes per day to myself, so not nearly as much time to read as I would like.

Anonymous said...

Ha! I saw the teaser on DHAK for this entry, and said to myself, "you know, I just bet she's talking about Prodigal Summer." I just finished it myself--I liked it for the story and the *descriptions* of nature (I just moved away from Southwest Virginia a year ago, so it fulfilled a homesick longing I've had), but it got a little preachy to me. And I am an ecologist by training, so I can imagine that it was tiresome to others, too.

I did like her writing style, though. Based on what I am reading here, I will have to go pick up the Poisonwood Bible next.

Good luck with the new baby! I'm a new mom of a 4 week old myself.

Dave said...

I haven’t read any of her stuff, but I’ll definitely seek some out now. I remember seeing the Poisonwood Bible on everyone’s coffee table a while back, and without knowing a thing about it, it just didn’t appeal to me. I was just fresh off The Holy Bible now that I think about it, so maybe that was the problem. And that one was just rife with problems: too many characters, dragged out storyline, that whole Job melodrama—could have benefited from a ballsy editor is all I’m saying. Before that I read Dave Pelz’s Putting Bible, the Excel 2003 Bible, and The Lawn Bible, so I was a little Bibled out. Regardless, probably should give this one a go.

Tammy said...

My biggest problem with the Bible is it just doesn't seem to know what genre it wants to be in. History? Science fiction? Fantasy? It's all too messy for me.

Congratulations, silene! How is motherhood treating you? And I totally agree with you about Prodigal Summer. The writing in and of itself is gorgeous. I just felt like it kept hitting the same note.

To answer your question, Kristin, it helps to (a) be an insomniac with (b) a baby who sleeps all the time and (c) a husband who's at home on hiatus for the summer. God only knows what I'm going to do when Sam finally wakes up and my husband heads back to work. Ah well... at least I'll still have my insomnia.